How alumni can inspire international student recruitment

by Nik Miller - 14 September 2020


As the COVID-19 pandemic hits global student recruitment across higher education, Nik Miller reflects on how alumni can animate and engage new communities.

In my work with universities over the past fifteen years, the rapid increase in global student and staff mobility has defined contemporary higher education. I’ve seen universities enjoy increased diversity, dynamism and innovation on campus because of international students – with many now depending on the revenue generated.

For this reason, the impact of the pandemic on international student recruitment is worrying. Most immediately, measures to ‘flatten the curve’ around the world are having a sharp impact on student mobility. The predicted global recession will also make more cost-effective options nearer to home attractive to many students, intensifying competition among UK institutions.

Colleagues from across higher education have a strong track record of adaptability, creativity and pragmatism in times of challenge. But these immediate impacts, combined with continued uncertainty, is especially challenging for many of us. And this, for me, is where alumni come in.

Why your international alumni matter
It feels like a lifetime ago. In February, during a day on campus with colleagues at the University of Manchester, a group of international students joined the same queue as me, eagerly awaiting coffee. A discussion unfolded. This involved me briefly describing the exciting work that my colleague Rosie and I were delivering with the Development and Alumni Relations team – designing journeys to inspire alumni to support the institution’s ambitions. A response from one student came fast:

I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t talked to a Manchester graduate, I was ready to study in a different country. Hearing her talk about her experiences, on the course, the campus, persuaded me and my parents this was the place for me. And she was right.

As we parted company, they asked how they could get involved after their graduation this summer. It proved again for me the untapped potential of our international alumni communities.

The time to mobilise alumni communities is now
For a long time now, I have been gathering evidence to demonstrate how international student recruitment is becoming increasingly competitive. This was true long before the effects of the global pandemic and, in the UK, the compounding impact of Brexit and the introduction of the new immigration system. I’ve also been a passionate advocate for how strategies in alumni relations, corporate engagement, and philanthropy, can provide impactful responses.

Over the last few months, I’ve become convinced that these progressive approaches are not just relevant, but now essential – in the UK, but also in many other countries where we work including Australia, South Africa and across Europe.

Through carefully managed programmes, alumni based overseas can be engaged to deliver independent talks in schools and colleges, extending your institution’s reach into areas where recruitment officers may not go. For example, at one institution I worked with recently, reaching into previously unengaged cities in the US and China generated a 300% rise in applications.

I’ve seen that international alumni can also serve as ambassadors, engaging with prospective international students and their parents to help boost recruitment efforts and grow connections overseas, especially at conversion time (when an applicant is deciding between various institutions’ offers of a place).

Making alumni programmes work
During my time working alongside universities in the UK and across the world, I’ve learned a little about what works, and what doesn’t. For me, successful programmes that engage alumni to support international recruitment need to:

1. Account for cultural norms and diversity, recognising that both recruitment approaches and attitudes to volunteering vary between, for example, North America and Asia. Engagement is also likely to vary depending on which disciplines are the priority – there’s much to learn from business schools where these practices are often well established (see the University of Leeds Business School LinkedIn page, for example).

2. Build effective collaboration between the alumni office and international recruitment teams, and agree areas of responsibility early on – typically the recruitment office should manage volunteer programmes (they’re the experts here after all), with the alumni team promoting volunteering opportunities and managing stewardship, including developing opportunities for philanthropy alongside volunteering.

3. Start small but aim for scale, with early programme design anticipating significant increases in volunteers. We’ve seen many small, effective programmes that cannot be easily expanded. Digital platforms (including automation with the alumni database) and well documented processes help with this, along with a balance between monitoring activity without having to ‘moderate’ conversations between alumni and prospective students.

4. Measure the impact of alumni relations programming. Unlike in some other areas of alumni engagement, international-student recruitment can provide clear quantitative indicators that allow for more sophisticated ways to evaluate your impact. Changes in application and conversion rates, benchmarked against previous years, and recruitment trends in the sector can usefully indicate whether alumni involvement is having a meaningful impact on your institution’s recruitment activities. The great work at CASE is helpful here, and note that the second annual Global Alumni Engagement Metrics (AEM) survey launches soon.

The pandemic will mean that many traditional models of recruitment, including recruitment fairs and campus visits, won’t be available. Now’s the time to pivot towards alumni ambassador programmes.

Institutions that thrive post-pandemic will successfully mobilise the communities that matter most. Alumni overseas are a valuable institutional asset, typically keen to act as advocates; but too often dormant. And how we engage alumni at this time will set the tone and ambition for the years ahead.

About the author
Nik Miller has published widely1 on strategies to enable alumni to advance institutions’ great ambitions, and supported universities around the world for over fifteen years. To discuss engaging your alumni overseas, contact Nik on nmiller@morepartnership.com.

1"Strategic affinity: engaging international alumni to support internationalisation", March 2013, AdvanceHE
"Staying global: how alumni relations advances the agenda", September 2015, European Association for International Education (EAIE) Occasional Paper 24